Early in my freshman year, I was eating dinner with a group of friends when we glided into a conversation on our lives before college. I mentioned growing up on the Navajo Nation and a few friends began to inquire further. Our conversation then began to spiral and I flinched when one friend voiced his belief that “Indians love to be called ‘Indian’ because that is what the white man called them.” I recognize that the term “Indian” is not collectively considered a pejorative term by the Indigenous community. And I am not Indigenous, so it is not my intent to claim that it is derogatory. As is their prerogative, it is my understanding that identity preferences change among Indigenous individuals. It was not that my friend asserted his belief that unequivocally the preferred term by the Indigenous community was “Indian.” That is not what shook me. Instead, my concern was that he — a white man — genuinely believed that white society played a positive role in determining another race’s preferred name distinction. This is precisely why ignorance is not bliss. Because soon after his careless assertion, he then blithely referred to the Native community as savages, and asked where I lived on the reservation: “a cave dwelling? A tepee?”
Our peers at Cornell are some of the most distinguished young adults from all over the globe. And yet, the ignorance that courses through this campus in daily discourse is unwieldy. This is problematic because while provocative speech often comes from hatred, it always comes from ignorance.
I think about racial bias and microaggressions a lot. It’s annoying — just as admitting to my continual meditation on race relations is obnoxious. Talking about race relations is obnoxious, and implicit bias is annoying. Microaggressions are frustrating. The term microaggressions itself sounds made up. It seems extra to give a name to something that is “micro” anyway — as if they are hostile attitudes that are so miniscule that you need a microscope to see it. Microscopic. Thesaurus.com insists that it is just another word for insignificant, an insignificant aggression, which means it does not matter — which means that mentioning it is a waste of time, and nobody likes their time wasted.
It makes sense why one might choose to take the easier route to conceal the injustices that continue to slither into every pocket of our campus culture. Yet, neglecting to denounce our peers and instead accept their prejudiced speech in colloquial conversation impedes our opportunity to expose and reconcile our past and present evils via honest conversation. The implications of the language we use is so powerful, that to shy away from addressing problematic language is to commit a disservice. As James Baldwin said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
We are only able to grow if we stop closing our eyes to our shameful history. Hate speech is an important element in explaining the current and primitive intolerance that is embedded in our nation’s structurally racist composition. Banning literature that contains hate speech or refraining to address offensive dialogue at dinner tables eliminates the history that is connected to that speech. It ensures that more of my white companions continue to believe the lies their ancestors told them — lies that they will then be compelled to tell their children.
Some argue that what is most important is not what you say, but how you say it. I contend that it is both. When it comes to contentious subjects such as the position that hateful speech has within society, of course what is first taken into consideration is what was said. Ignoring how and the context in which it is said, however, underestimates the remarkable power of words. Because though both equally harmful, intolerance and ignorance are different mutations of discrimination, and thus require separate solutions. Shutting down the speech does not shut down the hate, however, it will definitely shut down opportunities for education.
I appreciate the reality of distinction. Of differences that mean everything, that mean nothing. Too often, I focus on the differences that mean nothing. I get told that is the easiest way to get burned.
Despite his offensive and racist words, I have seen my friend since that dinner. I’ve eaten with him a couple times since that night and I embraced him with sincerity when I first saw him recently at the start of the semester. I find myself questioning if that is bad. A significant part of me feels that I should only associate myself with people who fully align with my ideologies, and are down for the same “cause.” But maybe that is naive. I can not just disown peers who have said or at one point believed ignorant and offensive things. We are all guilty of ignorance.
I cannot say that my friend was knowledgeable about the implication of his words. Actually, even with my attempts to explain the horror in his rationale, I doubt that he understood the implications of what he said at all. I do not find his disparaging words excusable, but I also do not believe the blame for continued ignorance rests entirely on him or even other individuals who say and believe ignorant and discriminatory things. My friend, like the rest of society, experienced the same education as the rest of us.
Sidney Malia Waite is a sophomore in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Waite, What? runs every other Friday this semester.